He could earn up to $240 in one night for selling 800 eggs.
There are only two sides to a coin. No in-betweens.
For most poachers and conservationists around the world, this is true. They either hunt or protect animals – with all their lives.
But this is a beautiful story of both worlds.
In many places, hawksbill turtle eggs are still widely eaten. Their eggs are still being poached to be sold for local consumption. According to the locals, the best way to eat it is raw or boiled and sprinkled with salt for taste.
Meet Tambi Shah bin Hamid and Zainal bin Mahon, two very experienced poachers who know everything about the hawksbill turtle in Melaka, home to the highest population density of the critically endangered species in Malaysia.
For more than 20 years, 45-year-old Zainal had only one goal: sneaking hundreds of turtle eggs from nesting beaches in exchange for cash. At 33 cents apiece, Zainal could earn up to $240 for 800 eggs in a single night – plus a delicious meal for the family.
59-year-old Tambi wasn’t as experienced as Zainal, with just 10 years of poaching under his belt. But he, too, has also sold up to 200 eggs to local licensed egg collectors for 26 cents each.
It wasn’t until 2016 when WWF and the Department of Fisheries (DoF) approached them with an unusual offer: to protect – not poach – the hawksbill turtle. They said yes.
They knew it wasn’t going to be easy. As poachers, they had spent decades escaping the law and avoiding capture by officials. They knew all the possible tricks used to steal the prized eggs. Now, they had to outmanoeuvre the very poachers they used to know.
“Patrolling during the highest tides and crossing the river to reach the nesting beaches before the poachers arrived was the craziest thing I’ve had to do,” Tambi revealed.
Today, Zainal and Tambi are part of a dedicated team of Turtle Guardians working to bring the species back from the brink of extinction.
Since becoming a Turtle Guardian four years ago, Tambi has seen the benefits of being a protector. He’s also experienced less conflict with the local communities.
On the other hand, Zainal has grown to appreciate his role as a Turtle Guardian after knowing the challenges he faces daily to defeat the poachers.
“I used to eat the eggs but no longer do that now,” Zainal admitted.
During the peak season, weekends and public holidays, he has to patrol the beach more frequently to prevent them from being poached.
The poachers are smart. Their usual strategy: enter the beach area with public access, and spot turtles that have laid their eggs before poaching the eggs swiftly. Upon leaving, they cover up the turtle tracks and pretend like nothing has happened.
Hawksbill turtles are disappearing quickly
Critically endangered globally, hawksbill turtles play a very important role in the marine ecosystem: maintain the health of coral reefs. Their numbers have significantly declined due to poaching of their eggs and parts, and loss of nesting and feeding habitats.
Though the flow of tourists to Melaka during turtle nesting season creates a vital source of income for the locals, tourism has also hindered the nesting activities. This impacts female turtles, which have difficulties in finding safe, secluded places to nest.
Zainal added, “Tourists might have learnt how to find the turtle eggs just by watching the tourism activities conducted at Padang Kemunting beach. The whole process is openly demonstrated to the public.”
Nests are also threatened by the changing climate. Rising sea levels impact nesting beaches, while increasing temperatures results in more female than male turtles hatching. With fewer male turtles, it’s no surprise that their numbers are dwindling.
Protecting key nesting beaches along Melaka’s coastlines
Identifying the key nesting areas is vital. Together with Department of Fisheries (DoF), local communities and government officials, WWF has been working to protect turtle eggs deposited along the coastlines by training turtle protectors and restoring coastal habitats.
Boasting the highest density of hawksbill turtles nesting on Melaka coastlines, Padang Kemunting beach was flagged as an area that required urgent rehabilitation.
Local communities and government stakeholders helped by planting trees along the coastline. The trees not only provide a conducive nesting environment for the turtles, they also protect people and homes from storm surges.
Equipping turtle protectors with tools and skills
Recruited from the communities, turtle egg protectors include former licensed egg collectors, ex-poachers like Zainal and Tambi, and graduate students from community schools who are seeking conservation experience. Their common goal: reduce egg poaching rates by outsmarting the poachers.
At the start of the nesting season in April, a training and refresher course is conducted. Armed with a nesting monitoring kit comprising tools to tag turtles, collect data and transfer eggs safely, WWF and field assistants ensure efficient reporting, communications and consultations among the local officials and communities.
Over three months from April to June, the communities also conducted nesting monitoring activities, which recorded 171 nestings at nine nesting beaches in Melaka. A total of 16,725 eggs were secured and incubated in the hatchery of Padang Kemunting beach.
Bring back our turtles
A recent report revealed that 1 million animal and plant species are now threatened with extinction – one of which is the hawksbill turtle.
Although this story brings hope for species recovery, it’s hard to comprehend the massive impact of humans on nature and wildlife.
A newborn hawksbill turtle that overcomes all odds to make it to the sea, faces even greater perils from humans after. Around the world, their populations are threatened by unsustainable fishing methods, widespread plastic pollution, and even poaching for the illegal turtleshell trade.
What would it take to bring them back?
This conservation project is made possible thanks to the support and kind generosity from The Shaw Foundation for WWF-Singapore.